Drawn In or Drawn Out

A six-novel series is a large canvas. If the opening pages seem leisurely, we should cut the author some slack. But after 150 pages of The Broken Crown, which is book 1 of Michelle West’s Sun Sword series, I’m ready to pack it in. A glance at the book’s failings may, I hope, be instructive for other writers. So let’s go for it.

In the first 25 pages we meet a young woman, a healer, who is kidnapped by a charming demon, locked up in a stone tower, and raped. At the end of the chapter she’s pregnant. Then we switch to a different character. We get 30 pages from the point of view of an older peasant woman whose visitor (the aforementioned demon) presents her with a new-born baby to take care of, the implication being that the mother from chapter 1 is now dead.

This opening has rather the flavor of a fairy tale, though it’s grim. But then West pulls the rug out from under us. The next 100 pages have nothing whatever to do with these characters. Instead, we’re plunged into a stew of palace intrigue. The culture is highly formalized. The main character is an upper-class woman of 32. Not being married, she is in charge of her brother’s harem. Her brother is shortly to undergo some sort of dangerous test. Her brother’s daughter, though only four years old, is a gifted singer, and that puts the little girl in great danger, for some reason that isn’t clear. There is a masked festival. There are rumors of war.

The first difficulty with this material is that there aren’t any likable characters. We were maybe starting to like the young healer who was kidnapped, but she’s out of the picture. The upper-class woman in the first long section orders a murder rather casually, and her other actions are so highly formal that she comes across as stiff. Her demeanor may be appropriate to her culture, but for that precise reason it’s hard for a modern reader to identify with. Writers who toss a lead character into a highly formal courtly environment quite often make the character a rebel with a more modern attitude (which not infrequently gets her in trouble). This may be a cliche, but it’s a smart strategy because it lets us relate to the character.

The second difficulty is that West spends most of her time focusing on — obsessing about, really — the characters’ inner lives, and seldom bothers to paint a visual picture of the place where a scene is occurring.

Here’s an example. One of the harem wives has suffered a miscarriage, and is dying. The only description of the room in which this takes place is as follows: “The silks and the cushions were covered in blood.” That’s the whole description. A healer has been called, but for some reason he doesn’t want to do the healing. At this point, a masked stranger climbs in the window (it’s the night of the festival, that’s why the mask, and he’s also a bard) and orders the healer to proceed with the healing. The upper-class woman, whose name is Serra Teresa, has tried to have the stranger assassinated only an hour before, for no very clear reason, and he knows it. But suddenly he’s being helpful, again for no very clear reason:

“Who is she?” the healer cried. “Who is she, to merit this?” [By which he means, to merit being healed when she’s dying. As if that were a legitimate question for a healer to ask.]

But the stranger had no answer to give the healer. Instead, he looked to the Serra Teresa, nodding his head before she could see the expression in the deep-set eyes of the mask — of the many masks — he wore.

He understood loss. He understood love. He understood what a bard [that is, another bard she has told him about] had cost her; understood that she could not, cleanly, hate the man, that she had grown attached enough to someone who understood her gift and its compulsion that she still mourned his death beneath the surface of her ever-present resentment of the fact that his well-meaning interference had taken from her the life that she’d been groomed and trained for — the one chance that she had to be more than a “child” in someone else’s harem. And he understood what Alora [her brother’s wife, who died several years before] had given her in its place, and what Alora’s loss meant.

Alora’s death. And she had never mentioned Alora’s death.

Was she a simple child, a simple girl, to be so moved by understanding? Was she a weak and simpering innocent, to crave so desperately a thing which made her so vulnerable?

It goes on like that. That’s just the first half of the passage that follows the healer’s blurted question. Quite aside from the dreadfully confusing structure of that long sentence, quite aside from the uncertainty of the viewpoint — whose thoughts and feelings are we reading about? — all of this blark gets dumped into the reader’s lap in the midst of a dramatic scene where a woman lying on a bed is bleeding to death.

The third difficulty is that the opening 150 pages give us no hint of a fresh imaginative premise that could capture our attention. There is mention in the opening chapter of the Night Lord, who seems to be a major demon, but big-ass demons are not a new idea, and labyrinthine tales of palace intrigue are a dime a dozen. Possibly West is setting the stage for something marvelous, but if so, she has hidden it too well. We’re not drawn in.

So there are your writing tips for today. In any novel, whether or not it’s going to be 4,000 pages long, it’s advisable to introduce a likable character, preferably within the first few pages. In the opening of a fantasy novel it’s probably a good idea to give the reader a glimpse of something fresh or unusual. In any chapter of any novel, it’s highly desirable to describe the physical locations in which the scenes are taking place. And please resist the temptation to dump long drawn-out paragraphs of emotional insight into the midst of action scenes.


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